Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Equity and Mathematics: An Interview with Deborah Ball and Bob Moses: When Algebra Project Creator Bob Moses and Math Researcher Deborah Ball Talk, Their Conversation Is Less about the Mechanics of Math and More about Issues of Equity and Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Equity and Mathematics: An Interview with Deborah Ball and Bob Moses: When Algebra Project Creator Bob Moses and Math Researcher Deborah Ball Talk, Their Conversation Is Less about the Mechanics of Math and More about Issues of Equity and Education

Article excerpt

KAPPAN: I'm always curious about how people arrived where they did in their professions. How did you both get interested in math? How did you become interested in math education?

BOB MOSES: I went through public schools in New York City, through PS 90 in the early Forties. After World War II, the nation went on a talent search. So when I graduated from the 6th grade, we were told that a small group of us would join students from every elementary school in Harlem and the South Bronx in what they called a "rapid advance" class. So we did junior high school in 2 1/2 years instead of three. I had an algebra teacher who was really very good there. After Stuyvesant High School, I went to Hamilton College, where I had my first experience with someone in the philosophy department who was writing a logic textbook. That blew my mind. I didn't know people actually did that. I became the best logic student. But I was interested in philosophy. That sent me to Harvard University [where he earned a master's degree in philosophy]. Harvard's philosophy department was oriented to analytic philosophy, and Willard Van Orman Quine and other people were really focused on philosophy and math. I don't think I could have gotten the insights that have driven the Algebra Project from doing a major in math because the basic insights deal with philosophy's penchant for taking apart and putting back together the concepts everyone else takes for granted. That's what philosophers like to do. That really has been my particular input into the work of the project around elementary algebra. [Editor's note: One of Quine's ideas that Moses drew on for the Algebra Project was that students first need to understand math through everyday language before they can translate that into the more abstract language of mathematics. For example, before introducing students to the concept of a number line, Moses' teachers first introduced students to a train line with many stops between its beginning and its destination.]

KAPPAN: Deborah, you got to math in a completely different way, right?

DEBORAH BALL: Totally. I have no special history in math until much later in my life. I was a French major in college. When I was in high school, graduation requirements were very relaxed and kids could take pretty much whatever they wanted. So I took every humanities course, every English course. I took three languages and had one year of math and one year of science when I graduated from high school [in Iowa City, Iowa]. In college, I was a French major, which mostly means that you read, write, and speak in French but you study philosophy. That's actually a relevant clue because the content of the French major is actually philosophy; the mode of working on it is language.

Then, I became an elementary school teacher because I thought I would find teaching very intellectually interesting work, and that was true. After five or six years of teaching elementary school, I found my students were not learning math. I wasn't teaching it very well. On Friday, they would know how to do something and on Monday, they wouldn't remember.

That year, I was teaching 5th grade. I began to take more seriously what it would take for me to be better at reaching my students. So I began to study mathematics. I thought part of the clue was that I hadn't really studied much math myself and that maybe it would help if I did. So I began taking college-level math. I found it pretty interesting.

I did well in those classes, but it wasn't quite clear to me how this was going to help me teach school better. Then I took number theory, which electrified me. I just loved it. I learned much more about how to think mathematically and about proof.

Meanwhile, I was teaching 1st grade. I began experimenting a lot more with what I was doing with my students. I began to notice that the math I was taking was influencing what I could hear and what my students said. …

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